Journalism – and especially political journalism – is about criticism. The meat and drink of the oeuvre is taking people, governments or other institutions to task, either for not doing things, for doing things, or doing them badly.
If they do things well, they are largely ignored. A functioning system doesn't make headlines (although it might if we ever had a government IT system that worked). By its very nature, the media concentrates on "bad" news, and on criticism rather than plaudits.
Strangely though, those very journalists (and their employers) who so freely dish out their criticisms of all and sundry tend to be rather unenthusiastic about being on the receiving end.
In the old days, of course, there was no problem. Letters to the editor, attacking a story (or its author) has no chance of being published, while there was a "gentleman's agreement" between proprietors, that "dog shall not eat dog" – one that largely holds to this day. With the exception of Private Eye, the media did not attack other media.
What then brought the biggest change since newspapers graduated from their leafleting origins, was the internet. It had several effects, one of the most obvious being online commentary.
For the first time, readers were able to air their views on the material they were being offered, without the approval of the letters' editors. However, there were the dreaded moderators, who for a while held the line (and some still do), removing any content that attacked either the medium or the author.
While many posters have thus been banned, there has developed a sort of uneasy vade mecum, whereby you are permitted to attack the author in general terms – although not too often – but you are not allowed to attack the host, the specific media which carries the piece. Mostly, though, generalised attacks on the media are permitted.
As a result, within certain limits, commenters often get a free pass when attacking online authors, many of whom stand above the fray, choosing not to defend their work against what is sometimes a torrent of rather unpleasant abuse – on the very sensible basis that it is unwise to get into a fight with a chimney sweep.
Into this unholy mix comes the political blogger – of which there are three broad types: the media-hosted; the party affiliated; and the diminishing band of the non-aligned, such as EU Referendum, who neither have media backing nor support any particular party.
Sticking with the non-aligned, in common with the legacy media, we are able to take people, governments or other institutions to task, either for not doing things, for doing things, or doing them badly. Sometimes we can do it better. Most often, the media, with its greater resources and contacts, will take the lead.
But, non-aligned bloggers also enjoy the unique position of being able to criticise the media. The party affiliated blogs will not do this, and they are in bed with them, but we can and do take on the giants and point out their all too frequent failings – a process that is so easy at times that it is embarrassing.
To my certain knowledge, the newspapers know this, and hate the criticism. But they adopt the tactic of ignoring it – much the same tactic they used with UKIP in the early days. They don't link to us and, where others place our links on legacy media comments, they very often (but not always) disappear.
However, this means that, as bloggers, we are out on our own, and more so if we are attacking party-affiliated blogs and well as political parties. Some bloggers take great offence at being criticised, believing that – unlike the general media – they should be immune. This belief they often apply to their own comments, ruthlessly deleting those who disagree with them.
This brings me to the main point of this post, which is to explore the relationship between bloggers and their readers, and with that sub-set who comment on their posts. Here, quite obviously, I can only speak for myself – although I am fully aware that some of my observations will apply elsewhere.
The reason why it becomes necessary to take time to do this is that there is a certain proportion of commenters who have a seriously distorted view as to the nature of blogging – and what bloggers may or may not owe to their readers – and vice versa. Basically, I need a post on the record, to which I can link when I have to confront certain commentators, without having to write a specific response each time.
Firstly, in order to set the scene, I need to explain why I blog, and why I am still blogging after more then ten years – one of the longest-serving non-aligned bloggers in the country. And, as with any complex enterprise, there is no single answer.
The first reason is that I am Christopher Booker's researcher- and have been for over 20 years. I don't work for the Sunday Telegraph (although I used to do so) but for him personally, on issues related to his column.
Before even blogs (and the internet) became established, I used to write every week for him a number of news briefings on specific subjects, that he could use in his column. Some were by request. Others were more speculative, others were markers to flag up developing issues which might become relevant later.
Initially, I was sending these to Booker by fax, and then when we both got internet (and the computers that went with it), I used to send him e-mails. Because some of the content was of use and interest to others, I would also send copies to an expanding mailing list. Eventually, several hundred people were getting my briefings each week.
For a lot of reasons, it then made absolute sense to migrate onto a blog, making it more accessible, and reducing the time it took to administer an e-mail list. And initially, it enabled me to include a co-author, Helen Szamuely, who has since moved to her own blog.
The second trigger which brought us into the blogosphere was the promise of a referendum on the then EU constitution by Tony Blair, back in 2004. We thought it would be a good idea to provide information for "no" campaigners which was not then (or now) being provided by the media or the political parties.
Thirdly, I had by then developed a business as a political analyst and free-lance researcher, providing political and other clients with briefings on specific subjects. As with Booker, some were commissioned – some were general, background briefings. And once again, for a lot of very good reasons, it made sense to publish these on the blog – sometimes as the primary mechanism of communication.
Fourthly, the blog gave me (and Helen) a visible platform- a "shop window", so to speak. Determinedly independent and knowing that no one else could be relied upon to host our material, it gave us a mechanism to reach a larger number of people than we could by normal means. It also offered a small opportunity for soliciting donations to help keep the bailiffs from the doors and it strengthened our influence in certain political quarters.
Of the major reasons for blogging, though, there was one more: the comments system, which gravitated into a forum and then become a comments system as well. The opportunity to get feedback from a wide range of readers has always been one of my main motivations for blogging, as it is through these that one learns a very great deal. Thus, by and large, I welcome criticism, and even insults. In fact, as Winston Churchill might possibly have averred, there is no finer art than the well-crafted political insult.
It appears, though, that this brings me into conflict with a number of my commenters, those who – used to the legacy media way of doing things – believe they have a free pass to criticise me on my own blog, while remaining immune from any response. These are free with their insults (some not even realising they are being insulting) yet take grave exception when I respond in kind.
That brings me to the first point that I need to make. Simply, it is this: I do, most sincerely welcome feedback, and have no problems even with insults (as opposed to abuse). But my main (but not my only) criterion by which I judge comments is whether they add value.
Thus, a comment that tells me I am wrong, without telling me why (especially when I am not), is of no use to me. A comment which picks up any one of my numerous errors is welcome, and treasured – even if I do fight my corner sometimes, before accepting a disputed point.
But what I won't accept is gratuitous abuse, irrelevant dogma or those who complain when I respond in like manner to their own insults, whether deserved or not. This is a blog written by an adult, for adults. Expect as good as you give.
The second point I need to make is in response to those readers – very often identified by their own statements to that effect – who seem to believe that, by reading my blog, they are doing me some kind of favour. We get a lot of these and not just on this blog. Other bloggers get the same.
Usually attached to that is some kind of condition – in my case, an assertion that if only I modified my writings in some way, they would read more of my posts, and more people would come flocking to the blog.
Of course, I am fully aware that if I wanted to maximise hits, I would need to research what my target audience wants to see and then tailor my output for them. That assumes, however, that I am in the business of maximising hits, which might have been the case once, but certainly is no longer.
In this, I have to introduce yet other reasons for blogging. Essentially, I do it for myself, in the first instance because I enjoy writing, secondly because writing about things focuses the mind and helps me make sense of them, and thirdly, because I am often able to make use of the material in writing books for publication.
That latter process started with The Ministry of Defeat, and carried over into The Many Not The Few, and is currently informing Flexcit, where I am able to try out and develop ideas, before committing using them in a publication. Thus, the blog becomes a test bed for new ideas.
The point that emerges from this is that there is a hierarchy to my audience. Primarily, I write for myself. Then I write for Booker and a very small group of clients and influence-makers. And there's the rub. If there was no-one else involved, and no-one else looked at the blog, my output would largely be the same. The blog would soldier on.
Only then, therefore, is the blog available to the general reader. Make no mistake here – I welcome you to the blog, and enjoy having you follow my work. But you owe me nothing (although I'm incredibly grateful for the donations), and I owe you nothing – individually or collectively.
Essentially, I write what I write, and if you care to read it, I am very pleased to have provided something of value. But I will not accept any form of conditionality, changing my work (or style) just to soothe my critics. For those who tell me that they deliberately turn away from my work because it does not please them, that is their loss. Non-readers, and even regular ex-readers, are of absolutely no interest to me.
And despite the pundits chirping about blogging, as they do from time-to-time, I am one of the few non-aligned bloggers who - the aid of donations and sponsorship - actually make a living out of my craft. It's not brilliant, but it's something very few others have achieved - and that's without having to resort to advertising. In other words, unlike many of my critics, I am a successful blogger, and on my own terms.
Nevertheless, a lot of people do make the assumption that I am after volume (of hits). And if that was my original model, it led to the discovery of two things ...the volume has to be insanely high for a British blog (easier if you are American), and to get the volume you have to make too many compromises. So I've come up (more by accident than design) with a different economic model.
In this, I've managed to square the circle. I have a blog where successes is not dependent on reader volume, which means I don't have to pander to a general readership. I can go for quality rather than quantity. And quality blogging requires quality readers. The rest can go elsewhere.
To conclude, I come to a comment made to my son, who writes the blog, Complete Bastard. He is something of a chip off the old block, but he is his own master – I do not tell him what to write, and nor would I want to. But, to his work (and mine), he got this feline comment:
Must say that you and your dad's "no one understands the world except for us" schtik is getting a bit wearisome ... sorry, gotta be honest.
Peter responded in his own fashion to this "honesty", in some detail. By coincidence, I got something very similar on EURef comments the very next day. It declared of my Carswell piece:
This is the usual analysis. Richard North the sole person on the planet with true insight, any intelligence or honesty. Every other jourmo (except CB most of the time) politician, blog poster etc. is stupid, has no understanding, is corrupt etc … Sadly this is why Richard will always be on the outside looking in, instead of moving and shaking events himself.
I think my response more or less covers it, bringing us rather neatly back to where we started:
At least try some original thinking will you? I've seen this meme floating around for over a year, and it is about as weak now as it was when the first pathetic attempt was made to float it.It is, of course, the classic "straw man" argument. It does not stand up to analysis because the authors rely on sweeping generalisations rather than address individual issues. Mostly, that is because when they have tried, they fail.
The real point, though, is that, on the "outside", we cannot rely on "prestige", the appeal to authority, or the other stratagems the establishment relies upon to pursue their often flawed arguments. Instead, we have to do our research and get things right – otherwise, we have our readers who are only too keen to tell us that we've got it wrong (thank goodness).
Thus, they hide behind their generalisations knowing that, as long as they avoid any specific detail, they can never be challenged on it and be shown to be wrong. On reflection, though, if it keeps jealous inadequates in their comfort zones, who am I to argue? They need their little myths to console them.
Nor will you find me disputing that we do get it wrong occasionally, but I think on balance we get it right more often. That, I suspect, is one of the main reasons we attract so much hostility. And that's why, on balance, I'm not really concerned by criticism of this nature.
While the Mail is celebrating Douglas Carswell's defection as "brilliantly stage-managed political theatre", an alternative scenario is beginning to do the rounds.
Far from his "defection" being a principled stand of a eurosceptic MP, frustrated by David Cameron's lack of commitment to his cause, Conservative sources are claiming that he resigned in a fit of pique after being slighted by Conservative Central Office over hotel accommodation during the annual conference.
If this sounds all too trivial, those close to Carswell acknowledge that he is something of a drama queen, prone to storming out of meetings when he feels he is not getting his way. For him to decide to resign on the spur of the moment is entirely in character.
This would also explain the unlikely success of the publicity coup, in keeping it secret right up to the moment his defection was announced. So spur-of-the moment was his resignation, that not even Carswell himself knew of it shortly before the hastily arranged press conference. There had been no time for leakage.
Why this has slightly more plausibilty than anything we have be told so far, is that Carswell's reasons for defecting still doesn't stack up. As we see from his Twitter account, on 12 March (above), he was telling us: "Only the Conservatives will guarantee and deliver an In /Out referendum. It will only happen if Cameron is Prime Minister".
And for those who might have missed this happy thought, on 15 April Mr Carswell was articulating the same idea, writing in his Telegraph blog: "In order to exit the EU, we need David Cameron to be Prime Minister in 2017 – the year when we will get the In/Out referendum, our chance to vote to leave the EU".
The point is that, four months later, nothing has changed. Mr Cameron's commitment to a referendum is exactly the same now as it was then. If Mr Carswell believed back in March and then April that we need Mr Cameron in 2017 as prime minister in order to get a referendum then, at this particular juncture, he has no reason to believe otherwise.
At least, Carswell is no longer an MP. Today, the Chancellor of the Exchequer appointed him to be Steward and Bailiff of the Manor of Northstead, one of the formal mechanisms by which MPs are removed from office.
Traditionally, a by-election is held within three months of a seat becoming vacant, although there is nothing in the rules that requires this to be the case. The seat could be left vacant until the general election. Senior Conservatives, however, believe that Mr Cameron would be unwise to duck a contest, for fear of being accused of running scared.
With a short, sharp but costly election campaign in prospect, Carswell is expecting his expenses to be defrayed by former Tory donor, Stuart Wheeler, which makes a change from the taxpayer having to pick up the tab, although the cost of a by-election is variously estimated to cost between £80,000-200,000.
Meanwhile, there has been speculation in the Mail and the Mirror as to whether other Conservative MPs will follow Carswell. Named suspects (mostly) have denied any intention to defect.
Former political colleague, Daniel Hannan, has his own "take", writing an enigmatic blogpost. He predicts that the constituency will be Carswell's "for as long as he wants it", asserting that "his brand of optimistic, localist, forward-looking euroscepticism is hugely popular".
Says Hannan: "It could sweep the country at a general election, and propel Britain to global prosperity – if only the Conservatives and UKIP could overcome their animosities", to which he adds "No further comment". He might instead have written: "no chance".
In his reference to overcoming animosities, there is a hint of a possible rapprochement, but one which is entirely unrealistic. Carswell is not likely to become a bridge between the two parties, nor any sort of ambassador. In fact, he has set his bridges ablaze.
North Jr is now officially a criminal, having had his conviction upheld for disposing of a bailiff's clamp with an angle grinder.
Peter adds to the proud tradition of the North family for criminal enterprise. I first obtained my criminal record for unlawfully removing a dozen eggs from a hen house, in breach of a prohibition order. It is good to see the same respect for the law is being upheld.
North Jr was in court today, appealing against conviction for criminal damage, removing a clamp from his car. The result, though, was unexpected.
After his mother had died in June last year – shortly after his father had also passed away - Peter Troy had the unenviable task of clearing out the family home and dealing with the inevitable bureaucracy.
His task was not made easier by the execrable behaviour of Capita which, as collection agency for the BBC television tax, continually sought to extract a full fee, despite being told many times that there was no television in what were by then empty premises.
As the Mail now records, Peter did not leave it there. Turning the tables on this loathsome corporate, he billed them a £1,000 for stress and inconvenience, and threatened to take them to court to force them to pay.
Under this sustained counter-attack, the company initially responded with the usual attempts at a fob-off but Peter was not letting go. Eventually they buckled, paying him £250 in "compensation" and making a formal apology.
Not least which sustained the attack was the pretence by Capita that this was a one-off mistake, when Peter knew full well that there were many other examples of the same thing. The demands on him represented a systemic fault in the system and the aggressive recovery process is simply legalised extortion.
The subsequent publicity is also part of the fight-back, with Troy seeking to demonstrate that it is possible to take on the corporates and win. We do not have to sit back and take it. Furthermore, the fight was part of the test-bed for The Harrogate Agenda, where we are experimenting with ideas of how to take the fight to the enemy.
Peter will be at the Harrogate Agenda workshop this Saturday, when he will be showing for the first time the two films we have been working on during the summer. This current success will inform the process, and perhaps lead to another workshop (and even another film), where we explore ways of beating the system.
And this, when it comes down to it, is how "over-regulation" is going to be beaten – not by fatuous initiatives of the sort we saw this morning, but by individuals taking a stand, and fighting back. Too often, we see people just roll over, and allowing themselves to be fleeced.
For many, this is the "easy way" but, in the longer term, it is very much the hard way. The more you give, the more the system will take, and it is only when enough people say "no", and start fighting back, that we will regain control.
The Independent along with the BBC have been running a story about council tax arrears. Both reports concern an estimate of numbers of people in England falling behind with payments because they have lost benefit, with the total figure running at more than 450,000. That is an extrapolation of the 156,500 people who have received summonses as a result of changes to council tax benefit six months ago.
That figure comes from a freedom of information (FoI) trawl orchestrated by the Labour Party. They had asked all 326 billing authorities in England how many court summonses they had issued following the change to council tax benefit in April. Only 112 English local authorities replied, admitting to summonsing 156,500, including 11,830 disabled people, 2,153 carers, 59 veterans and 54 war widows.
Talking up the figures, shadow communities secretary Hilary Benn said David Cameron needed "to wake up to what's happening across the country". Families, he said, "are being forced to choose between staying on the right side of the law and feeding themselves".
But Local Government minister Brandon Lewis argues that the survey is "misleading", telling the BBC there had been about three million summonses in the last year of the Labour government and the situation was now "getting much better".
Labour's figures certainly don't seem to hang together. Our limited survey is more in line with the Conservative claim, and then there the Money Advice Trust survey from August suggesting that local authorities in England and Wales last year referred debts to bailiffs on 1.8 million occasions. Not by any means were all of these for council tax, but that figure doesn't seem to square with what Labour is telling us.
Thus we end up with a separate BBC piece headed: "Labour's figures do not stack up, say Tories", with the survey described as "shoddy". And this should not be. Good opposition, based on sound research is an important part of the democratic process.
In my many talks with Booker, he has been known to observe that, all things being equal, no party should be considered fit for office until they have proved themselves in opposition. And if this is the standard of work on offer, then demonstrably, they are not fit for office. All things, of course, are not equal, but the point stands. Labour should be doing better than this.
As the newspapers front page headlines today scream about increased energy costs – with the Independent reporting that the Red Cross is launching an emergency food aid plan for the UK's hungry, this blog can reveal a guaranteed way of beating price rises – become the CEO of your local council.
More specifically, according to Manchester Evening News, follow in the footsteps of Jim Taylor, chief executive of Rochdale council. He is about to see his pay soar by £40k to £170,000 following a senior management review.
The man looking after the Council's climate change policy, part of the ramp which has seen the massive hike in utility prices, is also a beneficiary of this review. Mark Widdup, Rochdale's, laughingly entitled director of economy and the environment, could also see his pay range rise from £61,536-£71,376 to up to £108,987 under the new regime.
On the other hand, Rochdale is cutting £45 million in services with 150 jobs lost. The pay of other workers has been frozen and council tax has been hiked by 3.5 percent. But Mr Taylor never need worry about where his next penny is coming from. If his captive "customers" don't pay up on time, he can add illegal court fees to their bills and then send the bully-boy bailiffs out after them, who can ramp up the charges even further.
And then, to secure Mr Taylor's generous pension package, which makes him better-paid paid than the prime minister - who only has the national government to look after - defaulters can be put in prison.
By contrast, I suppose it is of some consolation that Mr Stephen Porter of Great Places Housing Group can't put his tenants in prison. But that's where he should be, having extracted from "Great Places Housing Group" - a staggering £436,000 before quitting in April this year, including a huge £276,000 pay-off when he left.
This was to perform the tasks of what were one carried out by Council housing officers, and so diligently has Mr Porter – with his 23 percent pay hike – performed his duties that he has been foremost in contributing to the estimated 25,000 social housing or council tenants across the region who have fallen into rent arrears.
However, if ripping off council tenants in Manchester, or lording it in sunny Rochdale doesn't attract, and you are not particularly turned on by the prospect of raping teenage girls, courtesy of the Mr Taylor's Rochdale Social Services, you could have gone to Caerphilly
where, until recently, it was liberty hall on executive pay.
Unfortunately for them, a report from the Wales Audit Office (WAO) found that £488,927 was paid out unlawfully to Caerphilly officers following three separate decisions: £270,364 in respect of unlawful pay rises, £102,709 in unlawful buy-out payments to compensate for the loss of essential car user allowances, and £115,854 in unlawful buy-outs of additional annual leave.
Huge pay rises for 21 senior managers at the authority were authorised by a committee of one Plaid Cymru and four Labour councillors in September last year, at a time when the bulk of the council workforce was enduring the third year of a pay freeze. But it took a council staff rebellion to get the issue sorted.
Nevertheless, we are so lucky in this country to have such a vibrant, healthy democracy, with such fine upstanding public servants looking after our local interests. And, as Mr Taylor no doubt would be the first to agree, it only makes sense that freezing pensioners should cough-up more than 20 percent of their annual state pensions in council tax, to keep such sterling men and women warm and financially secure.
At a rough estimate, in the 20 years since the introduction of Council Tax in 1992, local authorities have fraudulently extracted about £4 billion from unwilling taxpayers. Billions more has been stolen by bailiffs, in illegal fees, on the back of harassment, threats and occasional physical violence.
Contrasted with the total lack of interest in addressing this illegal behaviour, we have the government storming in to recover a sum said to be in the "low tens of millions", overcharged by the services provider Serco, identified after irregularities in records kept for its £285m prisoner escorting contract had been discovered.
Neither has Serco been the only company alleged to have overcharged the government. The security firm G4S has also been implicated in a scam involving electronic tagging of released prisoners.
But the contrast between the alacrity the government seeks to redress perceived wrongs against itself, and the official indifference to the wilful overcharging and illegal application of fees by local authorities and bailiffs has Autonomous Mind suggesting that the state is waging a war against the people of this country, a view with which we thoroughly concur.
What really does stick in the craw is the indifference of the authorities, from the police who acknowledge that bailiff fraud is a crime but refuse to investigate it, to local authorities who in law are responsible for the actions of their agents, the bailiffs, yet more often than not refer complaints about bailiffs to the bailiffs themselves.
The situation is exacerbated by the failure of the media properly to report this growing outrage, although the Telegraph today makes slight amends by recording that more than a million motorists face bailiff threat.
Of particular note is the comment from an AA spokesman voicing concern about the readiness of councils to use bailiffs. "It is disappointing", he says, "that some mistakes are made yet councils seem to readily wash their hands of drivers trapped in a cycle of threats from debt collectors and bailiffs".
The spokesman goes on to say that, "The bailiff process is virtually unstoppable, even for the innocent and getting someone to listen is virtually impossible", reflecting exactly the experience that so many of us have had.
But even then, the report, and this one by the Mail, pussyfoot around the subject, failing to understand (or report) that what is being experienced is criminal activity. The entire bailiff industry is built on criminality. The business model is dependent on extortion and fraud, with the knowing complicity of local authorities.
Instead, the British Parking Association (which counts bailiff firms as its members) gets a free pass, being allowed to say that, "At the end of the day it is about individuals who have received tickets and haven’t paid them. They have received a number of reminders and appeals and have reached the point where they still haven't paid it".
"The only method of enforcing it is to register the fine at a court and instruct the bailiff to gather the debt", says the Association, not beginning to recognise that this in no way authorises or legitimises criminal action.
But that indeed seems to be the rationale which sustains both local authorities and the bailiff industry. To owe money to officialdom places the citizen outside the protection of the law. Sex offenders and murderers get better treatment. But then we ought to know that the only "offences" the State is really interested in are those committed against itself.
However, once people realise that the only real concern of the State is its own self-perpetuation and enrichment – as is beginning to happen – attitudes will change. A state perceived as the enemy is not going to find to so easy to continue its business of criminal extortion.
The Money Advice Trust, via The Daily Telegraph and others has established that local authorities in England and Wales last year referred debts to bailiffs on 1.8 million occasions.
These debts include council tax arrears, business rate arrears and parking fines, with councils claiming that bailiffs are only ever used as "a last resort".
This claim we know from personal experience, and from the experiences of many others, to be a lie. But then, that is what governments do: they lie. Local authorities uses bailiffs for debt collection as part of an automatic (and mostly illegal) process which ends up in these thugs being given a license to extract even more money from often hard-pressed debtors, in a system that lacks humanity or justice.
But then, to finance their increasingly extravagant lifestyles and reckless waste of public money, council officials have little option but to resort to threats, bluster and harassment, as they seek to extort increasing amounts of money from an increasingly unwilling population.
Alongside this, we also see the news that there are nearly 4,000 prosecutions a week for not having a TV license, with the number of prosecutions having increased by nearly 30,000 in 12 months. More than ten percent of all cases coming before the courts are for TV licence fee "evasion", we are told.
This is yet another tax that lacks legitimacy, and thus we find people increasingly reluctant to pay. And once again, the establishment response is to flex its muscles and resort to threat, bluster, harassment, and then penalties, force and eventual imprisonment.
For all its claimed concern for women's rights and equality, the BBC here is excelling, making sure that a high proportion of women are jailed.
But this is but one example of the government at war with its own people. Although that war has not been sanctioned by an overt declaration, and is poorly reported by the legacy media, day after day the shock-troops of oppression (BBC report) sally out from their bases, to spread their fear and misery.
Meanwhile, the forces of darkness are seeking means of increasing their "take", in this case the police seeking to by-pass the "referendum lock" that prevents an increase in Council Tax without a referendum.
As we see from the BBC film report linked above, where the police support the illegal actions of bailiffs, we are moving to a situation where the police forces' main activity will be collecting their fees from unwilling householders.
But, if our government and their agencies have launched an undeclared war against us, it is about time we started to fight back. Of course, some of us are but this is also a numbers game, and not everybody needs to go as far a North Jnr (although they are welcome to join him).
Even people deducting a penny from their annual Council Tax bill can take part in the battle. We are working up a scheme on how to organise this, under The Harrogate Agenda label, with the idea that it should be called the "Penny Revolution".
As I wrote earlier, me doing this is a [very] slight irritation. A thousand people doing this is a problem. A hundred thousand people doing this is a crisis. A million people is a revolution. We have within us the power to make things change. All we need to do is use it.
Sadly, many people can't see the point, or can't be bothered with the inconvenience of having to make payments manually, instead of relying on automatic direct debit payments, happily giving government access to their bank accounts.
But if we cannot even be armchair revolutionaries, there is little hope for us. One by one, we get picked off by state thugs, who know only one thing – to keep coming as long as there is money to be extorted. Sooner or later, we are going to have to stop them. My feeling is that now is as good a time as any.
Motorists have been "urged" to go to war on councils who break the law by using parking fees as a massive moneyspinner, says the Daily Mail.
However, we know that this "rip-off" is just the tip of the iceberg. Local authorities have been highly inventive in taking our money, without the slightest regard for legality, all to fund their entitlement culture and feed the town hall fat cats.
Thus, we do indeed need to go to war – but this must be more than just over parking charges and fines. This is a question of bringing local authorities under democratic control. For a start, this means annual referendums to approve budgets - one of the core demands of The Harrogate Agenda.
There should be no taxation or spending without direct public consent. Until that is the case, it is our duty to make ourselves ungovernable. The big problem, of course, is how we do this ... but it is actually a question of how do you count the ways.
For instance, rather than leave Mrs EU Referendum to the mercies of the bailiffs in my absence, very reluctantly I have paid this year's Council Tax before the bailiffs came to call - they are late this year.
However, the money goes by cheque without account number, stapled to a letter addressed to the office of the chief executive ... minus the liability order fee (which is illegal) and less two pence, just so that the sum doesn't match that on the bill.
Me doing this is a slight irritation. A thousand people doing this is a problem. A hundred thousand people doing this is a crisis. A million people is a revolution. We have within us the power to make things change. All we need to do is use it.
One of the issues to which we devote insufficient space and time is local politics, and especially to the vexed subject of Council Tax.
Brought to our notice recently, though, was the especially Orwellian press release from East Hampshire District Council (EHDC), congratulating itself on its high level of collection, recovering 98.8 percent of its tax due, putting it in the top ten percent of councils in England for collection performance.
Says Council Leader Ferris Cowper, "A high collection rate is excellent for the council's overall finances and also great news for council taxpayers and businesses. He goes on to say: "It means that the council does not have to use large sums of money to pay for bad debts and this helps to reduce the pressure to increase Council Tax in the future. When it comes to Council Tax, if everyone pays, then everyone pays less".
However, throughout the land, there is absolutely no evidence to support this statement. In this case, as elsewhere, EHDC's tax levels are set within the parameters mandated by central government. Being a two-tier district, it depends hugely on the activity of the County Council, which provides the bulk of local services.
Thus, in the short-term, Council Tax levels entirely unrelated to recovery rates, and they certainly do not drop because of the collection performances. Over the longer term though, there is at work a dynamic which is exactly the opposite to which Councillor Cowper asserts.
In the absence of restraint, there are no natural limits to the level of tax governments will impose, other than the limits set by people's ability to pay and willingness to pay – the former, to an extent, governing the latter.
On the other hand, the more resistance to taxation there is, and the more difficult (and expensive) the authorities find collecting any specific tax, the less inclined they are to pursue it. Every Councillor and official should be imbued with the idea that their taxpayers are on the verge of rebellion. And where this is reflected across the board, overall taxation levels will be lower.
As Hampshire County Council Leader Roy Perry readily acknowledges, when there is national pressure to avoid council tax rises, politicians seek to contain increases. The increasing difficulty councils are having in collecting that tax is part of that pressure. That is one signal – and a very effective one – that tells the authorities that tax levels are too high.
Elected politicians and – especially - officials and would prefer that their revenue-providers (aka citizens) confined their signals to approved channels, such as voting, which can be safely ignored, or funnelled into areas where the signal is so blurred that the message can be discounted.
This means they tend to single out those who send non-approved signals, such as deliberate late-payers, imposing often illegal "fines" disguised as court fees incurred in recovery (for summonses and liability orders), and allowing their own recovery contractors (aka bailiffs) to impose punitive, and very often illegal collection fees.
By this means, the system is able to levy "fines" at a level higher than most courts would apply for quite serious criminal offences, and also impose custodial sentences more severe than would be imposed on violent criminals. And, most often, the "fines" are directed at those least able to pay, or those less equipped to handle their financial affairs.
On this basis, the Orwellian Council Leader, Mr Ferris Cowper is wholly wrong. The more people there are who resist council tax, and who make it difficult for councils to collect, the lower overall tax levels will remain. This is the hissing geese theory of taxation, and there is no better one.
Thus does, of course, marginally increase local authority costs, but that is part of the cost of democracy. Just as there is a cost involved in holding elections – and increasingly popular "consultation" exercises, to legitimise that which the authorities intended to do anyway – so there will be a necessary cost to tax collection, the expense of which is part of the democratic process, in restraining the excesses of our rulers.
To assert. therefore, that willing taxpayers reduce bills, is an establishment myth – it is a classic "Orwellian inversion", the exact opposite of the truth.
An opportunity has arisen that we just can't miss. In pursuit of The Harrogate Agenda, readers will know that we've been working on two full-length video documentaries, one the foundation video and the other on the "Norway option", looking at how the UK would fare as an EFTA/EEA member.
On the latter, although we're going to Norway next month to do some filming, this week we have a very senior Norwegian government fisheries official visiting this country. He has agreed to be interviewed by us, in Bristol today. Hence, I'm 200 miles from home, positioned for the interview later today. I will report in detail when I return.
In the meantime, North Jnr is taking up the fight against rapacious bailiffs, and their partners in crime, South Gloucester District Council, with a new blog
of his own.
This is citizen journalism at its best – taking on what the government is now admitting is criminal activity perpetrated by bailiff companies, with the active complicity of local authority officials.
We are not powerless, and those of us who can fight back should do so. North Jr is doing his bit.
In the meantime, blogging is going to be light here. I have to concentrate on the main event, and prepare for what should prove to be a very interesting day.
Readers may recall us taking a stand on the behaviour of bailiffs employed by local councils to recover Council Tax arrears and other debt, with us charging that some of the activity was criminal.
Back then, in September 2011, we had obtained from West Yorkshire Metropolitan Police confirmation that a particular form of behaviour, the "phantom visit" which then led to massive overcharging, was in fact fraud.
Yet, despite this admission, and formal complaints to my own local authority, nothing changed, and neither did the Police take action, even though they acknowledged that there was de facto evidence of offences having been committed. They had other priorities to occupy them, not least disposing of a disgraced Chief Constable.
A month later, I also had other priorities – a trip to the menders to acquire a porcine spare part, which gives one a somewhat different perspective on life. With that, we allowed the ball to roll gently to the edge of the field, although the momentum never completely dissipated. We still have things on the go.
However, no less than Eric Pickles, Communities Secretary has picked up the ball. An old Bradford hand, his stock is quite definitely on the rise.
Scarcely reported by the media – which says a great deal about how detached they are from real people and real concerns – Mr Pickles did at least make the pages of one of the Telegraph Media Group's sales brochures. This told us that "Ministers have ordered local authorities to rein in over-zealous bailiffs hired to collect council tax and parking charges".
The detail, though, is in recently issued guidelines which, as things go, are extremely interesting. Called "guidance to local councils on good practice in the collection of Council Tax arrears", these tell local authorities that they cannot dump the responsibility for collection of debt on the bailiffs and walk away. They remain responsible for the action of their contractors.
Councillors, the guidelines say, "should regularly scrutinise the operation of outsourced contracts; and the broader use of such recovery action must command and continue to command public support and confidence".
As to our particular issue on concern, the local authorities are told that, "Public concern has been raised about the practice of some bailiffs undertaking 'phantom visits' – charging fees for action when no action was actually taken". And then we have the money quote:
The Government consider that any fraudulent practices should be reported to the police as a criminal offence under the Fraud Act and that Local Authorities should terminate any contract with companies whose activities are proved fraudulent.
Back when we started all this, it took some serious pressure even to get the police to accept my complaint and that has been the common experience. Invariably, we get the mantra from the police, "civil action". But now there is a Government department telling us that bailiff malpractice should be treated as a criminal offence.
Mr Pickles has taken a major step forward.
Alex Brummer is in fine form in the Daily Mail today, with a front-page banner drawing attention to his piece, the term "ripped off" getting considerable prominence. I am not sure he adds a great deal more to our piece, but - obviously - his audience is much bigger, and he thus adds to the well of discontent over the behaviour of our predatory water companies.
In a working democracy, there would by now be "questions in the House" and MPs would be agitating on behalf of their constituents, demanding to know why it is that the Secretary of State for the Environment (whose responsibility water pricing is), had allowed such egregious looting by these corporates.
The extent of that looting is difficult to assess but there is at least one reference point – Scottish Water – which remains in public ownership. Its average bill
for 2013-14 is about £334 compared with the average
for England and Wales of £388.
With about 28 million households in England and Wales, on domestic charges alone, that represents a differential of about £54 per household, adding up to £1.5 billion. All other factors being equal, it is not unreasonable to project that as a baseline for the overcharge we are paying. And furthermore, the differential is increasing. In 2011, the average Scottish charge
was £30 lower, the operation having reduced running costs by almost 40 percent from their historic base.
Brummer's "take" on the story, though, focuses of Thames Water, whose board of directors significantly includes Ed Richards, a former member of Tony Blair's policy unit at No 10. It offers, he says, a depressing parable of how the ideals behind the privatisation of Britain's public utilities have been perverted.
When Margaret Thatcher embarked on the privatisation of the old post-war nationalised industries three decades ago, the noble intention was to remove the heavy hand of the State, and to impose private-sector discipline on out-of-date and under-funded industries.
Instead, Brummer has it that "we consumers" have been betrayed by a terrible combination of boardroom greed, weak regulation, and successive governments which have allowed our public utilities to fall into the hands of foreign owners. The result, he says, is that many of our public services, on which we all depend, are controlled by unaccountable companies based abroad, whose directors and investors seem to show scant interest in the hard-pressed British consumer.
In fact, the "betrayal" goes much further. On top of a weak regulatory base, we have the water regulator, Ofwat, which is supposed to control changes. But, through its latest chairman, we find we have been systematically overcharged. It should have been the case that the regulator stepped in earlier, or warned the Secretary of State for the Environment what was happening, but until the advent of Jonson Cox, there has been silence.
Then, supposedly representing the consumer interest is the Consumer Council for Water
, which tells us that it "strongly represents domestic and business water consumers", but if this is a "watchdog" at work, it goes about its own business with the tenacity of a dying hamster.
Its last critical intervention was in February
when, far from calling for reduced charges, amid self-congratulatory bilge, it lamely complained that water companies should be "giving something back" to their customers from higher than expected profits.
But, if there has been a system failure, from top to bottom, perhaps the greatest failure is in ourselves, for tolerating this obscenity, where – as the Mail
puts it, largely foreign-owned companies have "ripped off" billions from us.
Routinely, we read on our forum pages and elsewhere calls for "action" and complaints that there are no organised activities in which people can partake. But, in this particular instance, there is one obvious and very simple action we can all take against this egregious looting – we simply withhold payment.
As we recorded earlier
, our more robust forefathers between the wars, tenants in London and Glasgow, faced with predatory landlords, mounted a series of rent strikes
, forcing landlords to reduce their charges – but not before huge and prolonged battles with police and bailiffs.
Such robust action, however, is not for everyone, but there is graduated action which can be taken at every level, all of which can have a cumulative effect. At the bottom of the rung, one can send a letter to the water company, preferably addressed to the chief executive, complaining about the charges, and demanding a reduction.
Those wanting to take the inevitable brush-off further can withhold payments. But that does not necessarily mean refusing to pay. Simply holding off until the final demand makes a statement. Then, paying in odd sums, underpaying by a few pence, and sending the payments to the chief executive's office, without a customer account reference but with a further letter of complaint, all adds to the pressure.
In essence, these companies are predators and they will continue to hike their charges until they meet a level of resistance which negates the value of further rises - or until the regulator, buoyed by public protests, finally steps in. This is the "hissing geese
" strategy of Colbertian fame.
For those with a tougher constitution, there is the option of outright refusal to pay. This takes a steady nerve but, at the end of the process, all the water companies can do is huff and puff. Water disconnections are no longer permitted. This is the route I have taken, and now Yorkshire water asserts that I owe them over £1,500 in back charges and fees.
In fact, I owe them no such sum. This is an artificially inflated figure, with court and solicitors' costs, representing corporate bullying by the company as it deliberately seeks to maximise the debt as "punishment" for late payment and as a deterrent to those who might consider taking them on. And all this is in complete breach of the industry code of practice on debt recovery. That the companies ignore.
The experience, though, is to be put to good use. My plan is, in due course, is to mount a formal complaint – not to Ofwat or channelled through the consumer patsy, the Consumer Council for Water, but to the Monopolies Commission on the basis of "abuse of monopoly power". There is no hurry on this and our quest might eventually take us to Brussels and the European Commission, which also has powers to carry out investigations. The irony of it all!
What would be the best outcome is for the Secretary of State to refer the water industry to the Monopolies Commission, and thus force an investigation, while imposing a moratorium on any further increases. If the so-called "watchdogs" can't do their jobs (and that includes Parliament), then we have to look elsewhere for our remedies.
COMMENT: WATER COMBINED THREAD
Something that was entirely predictable has been doing the rounds in the legacy media, with a fullish report in the loss-making Guardian. The issue being reported is the sequella to changes to the Council Tax benefit system which mean that many more people are having to pay money directly to their councils instead of having it paid for them.
Inevitably, this means that the number of defaulters has increased, which has had Citizens Advice warning that increasing numbers of low incomes households could be at the mercy of "aggressive bailiffs".
Says Citizens Advice chief executive Gillian Guy, "We're concerned that changes to council tax benefit will mean more people will end up in debt because they can't pay their bill and have the bailiff knocking at their door".
Guy then goes on to say, with weary predictability, "Bailiffs often overstate their powers, deliberately frighten debtors and charge extortionate fees", then adding: "We want councils to help people get on top of their council tax debts so the use of bailiffs is no longer necessary".
The thing here is that we know that bailiffs do far more than "overstate their powers", as witnessed by an illustration offered by the Guardian, no doubt provided by Citizens Advice.
This is Raymond Merry and his wife Susan who recently found themselves at the sharp end of bailiff's practice. They fell a month behind on their council tax payments after both had been taken ill in December and paid their January bill two days late.
"The next thing I knew I had a note pushed under my door by a bailiff who was sitting in a van outside," says Raymond Merry. "He tried to walk in but I stopped him. He told me we owed him £300 – £107 was our debt and the rest in fees to him".
The Merrys then paid off their arrears but the bailiffs kept coming round. "My wife was very worried and we felt threatened," said Mr Merry. "In the end, after we had told them numerous times that we had been to Citizens Advice and that we had paid off our arrears, they stopped coming round".
The point, of course, is that the bailiff's action was almost certainly illegal. We have rehearsed this in detail, and even got an admission from West Yorkshire Police that seeking to obtain fees which were not due constituted fraud – a criminal offence.
But, as we all know, the business model of the bailiff industry is based on criminality. And their behaviour is not new to Citizens Advice, which routinely complains about the behaviour of bailiffs, and then does precisely nothing about it.
Effectively, Citizens Advice is an Uncle Tom charity, supported by government funds to shore up an illegal system, and take the edge of malpractice which, if it is allowed to develop too far, is going to get someone killed.
The charity could actually do something about this malpractice. It could point out that bailiffs are acting illegally. It could point out that their illegality is being condoned by the local authorities which employ them, making them co-conspirators in what has become a conspiracy to defraud.
It could also point out that the illegality is condoned by the police which, instead of doing their duty and upholding the law, more often than not aid and abet bailiffs in their illegal actions, making them also co-conspirators in these egregious breaches of the law.
Failing then to achieve change, Citizens Advice could actually take a private prosecution, seeking to have a bailiff summonsed, tried and convicted for fraud, and a local authority convicted for conspiracy to defraud – as the bailiff acts as the local authority's agent and is vicariously liable for its actions.
But Citizens Advice does nothing except whinge to the media and collect government funds for keeping the lid on an illegal system.
And that brings us to the issue of moral authority. Specifically, a government body (viz, a local authority) which relies for its debt collection system on illegal actions of its agents, and knowingly conspires to perpetrate multiple, criminal frauds, has no moral authority. The system is morally bankrupt.
To such people, we owe no support, no compliance, no obedience. They are no better than the thieves who break into your home and rob you of your possessions. They are criminals. And, sadly, they are part of our government.
Boring old water companies, the function of which was once to supply households and businesses with water, and take away their sewage, have now become the darlings of the city as a result of their new status of risk-free milche cows.
Latest in line for a shareholder bonanza is Yorkshire Water which, after a decade of lax control by water regulator Ofwat, has been able to double its prices to its 4.7 million-strong captive customer base, plus 130,000 businesses, while minimising its capital spend, thus yielding record profits.
Proof of the pudding comes from shareholders led by Infracapital, the infrastructure arm of the British fund manager M&G Investments. Having acquired the business in 2007 for roughly £3 billion in 2007, they are now putting up for sale a 30 percent stake, at an expected price of £1.5 billion. That puts the overall value of the company at £5 billion, a 40 percent hike in value in a mere five years.
Goldman Sachs and the Gulf state of Abu Dhabi are believed to be among those negotiating to buy into this bonanza, in the expectation that soft regulation will continue to allow the company to milk its customer base.
At last, though, someone seems to be noticing. Jonson Cox, Ofwat chairman and former chief executive of Yorkshire Water and Anglian Water, has served warning of tougher controls in the next five-year price review.
He feels the companies and shareholders have benefited at the expense of customers. "The past few years have been very kind to the owners of water companies at a time when life is very challenging for customers", he says.
For this unwilling customer, this is too little too late. Not only has Yorkshire Water benefited from being able to over-price its product, its predatory arrears collection is geared deliberately to inflating customer debts. It manipulates the court system and uses court fees as penalties to discourage late payers – in complete contravention of the industry codes of practice.
Between the wars, tenants in London and Glasgow, faced with predatory landlords, mounted a series of rent strikes, forcing landlords to reduce their charges – but not before huge and prolonged battles with police and bailiffs.
It seems to me, though, that history needs to be repeated. If even an Ofwat chairman is saying that the system has been "very kind" to owners of water companies, then it is time for a bit of "tough love" from the customer base.
This, of course, brings up the issue of privatisation. And one of the poisonous developments in this debate has been the conflation of the different types of public ownership under the one heading of "state ownership", often linked with "nationalisation".
There is a world of difference between public ownership of a monopoly enterprise such as water (and sewage) by a local community, where there is an accountable, elected management - i.e., a local council. This is better known as municipalisation. After all, there is no one arguing in principle against public ownership and management, at this level, of assets such as public parks and libraries.
Most water businesses started up as municipal enterprises, owned by the local communities that they served. Over time, their assets were been gradually expropriated by forced amalgamations until they were shoe-horned into these giant utility companies that we know today.
The assets of these "mega-utilities" were then sold off to the highest bidders under the guise of "privatisation", which was effectively the end point of the theft of municipal assets, with the funds acquired stolen by central government, which had no entitlement to them.
The new water companies have been given a license then to extract maximum yield from our investment, forcing us to pay back the cost of taking from us our own assets. These have now become cash-cows for multinational equity companies, with their monopolies carefully protected by statute.
Thus, it wasn't exactly a "stupid" idea to privatise the utilities, as some will assert. It was plain theft ... the government selling off enterprises that weren't theirs to sell. They have vested our assets in modern-day robber barons which now have a license squeeze money from us under the guise of providing a service.
For diverse reasons, Council Tax is going to be a big issue this year, although it is going to be very difficult to get a clear picture of what is going if one relies on local media.
Just before Christmas, for instance, we saw a classic example of "Uncle Tom" reporting by a local newspaper on the subject of Council Tax. This had "taxpayers" of Gloucester City Council "fuming" after a £3.1million black hole had emerged "because people have failed to pay their council tax".
The newspaper was the Gloucester Citizen which, with the most slender of evidence asserted "that taxpayers on the streets of Gloucester are demanding tough action on those that don't pay up".
Support for this proposition amounted to David McKechnie, from Abbeydale, who was cited as saying: "How can these people get away with it? … I pay my council tax every month by direct debit and don't complain. They should take it out of people's benefits before the money even reaches them".
Then the paper had one 78-year-old pensioner, from Kingsholm, who asked not to be named. This one contributed the following gem: "I pay my council tax because we all expect services in return. It's not fair if other people aren't making their contribution".
Before taking this further, one should note that the paper is somewhat overstating the case. Its "whopping" £3,119,121.74 – comprising the Council's "black hole" amounts to debts going back to 1993 – nearly twenty years. The city council actually collects £49.9 million each year and successful collections are at 96.6 percent – which is actually a pretty good record.
However, current debtors amount to some 4,212 people, who have been subject to court action for non-payment of Council Tax since April. And it is these people – or some of them – who are attempting to keep the system honest. Their actions are protecting the rest of the population from taxation even more excessive than it already is.
To lend substance this assertion, with which many will fundamentally disagree, we need to refer to Jean-Baptiste Colbert
, the French economist and minister of finance under King Louis XIV of France, and his outstanding contribution to the wealth human knowledge. That was the aphorism, "The art of taxation consists in so plucking the goose as to obtain the largest possible amount of feathers with the smallest possible amount of hissing".
This represents a fundamental truth which recognises that in any system of government, there is a natural limit to the level at which people will tolerate taxation. Once too many people start "hissing", government has to look elsewhere for its money, or trim its ambitions.
The corollary to this, however, also represents a fundamental truth. If people do not protest – i.e., "hiss" - then governments will assume consent, and increase levels of taxation until resistance stiffens. There is no other limiting factor.
Protest, of course, can take many forms. Traditionally the permitted process is the election – where electors are given the opportunity of removing their representatives if they don't approve of their plans. But even elementary-level students of government know that this mechanism no longer works – if it ever did.
On the other hand, a potentially effective way of "hissing" is to withhold payment, a mechanism which is every bit as "democratic" as an election. While the latter might attend to the demos
, cutting the money supply is a practical application of kratos
- people power.
Needless to say, there is a huge, well-established system aimed at preventing people exercising power, from the councils themselves, to their courts, the bailiffs and their uniformed "enforcers" - otherwise known as the police. Their existence and the way they operate underlines the fact that we are not (and never really have been) a democracy.
The point here is that, while every sensible person will agree that, as citizens, we should pay the legitimate costs of government, the crucial qualification is "legitimacy". And, in many ways, the system so far lacks any legitimacy that resisting it becomes a civic duty.
In other words – in the interests of democracy - we hiss now, and loudly, or end up as a flock of naked geese. And it is cold without any feathers.
"Reforms" says the Daily Telegraph that could give private investors control over Britain's biggest roads will be included in the new policy agenda for the second half of the Coalition due next month.
Private "managers" of these roads would then be allowed to levy tolls on any new capacity they provide, such as new lanes or bypasses. Existing roads that are "improved beyond recognition" by private management could also be considered for charging.
And so the net closes. It started in 1926 when Churchill, as chancellor of the exchequer first raided the Road Fund - intended to maintain the road network - then making provision for one third of revenue from motor vehicle duty to be paid to the Exchequer.
From there, it was all downhill and now, despite motorists paying more than £30 billion a year in road tax and fuel duties, there is a huge backlog of repairs. Just to catch up with routine maintenance, an estimated £10 billion-plus is needed. This is simply not available after Mr Osborne has snaffled all the money.
And so, just to get the roads we have already paid for – and more – the Government is coming up with ever more ingenious schemes for extracting even more money from us.
Interestingly, schemes proposed are not set to employ GPS tracking systems – using perhaps the EU's Galileo satellite constellation. Instead, the Government is looking at numberplate recognition, using roadside cameras – similar to those used for the London congestion charge.
Needless to say, that brings in another layer of enforcement, with fines and more opportunities for bailiffs to ply their trade. Thus do the grasping tentacles of Government extend their malign grip.
And no amount of dressing up is going to disguise the fact that this is a king-sized rip-off. Allowing the private sector to fill its boots as well is never going to be an answer. A rip-off is always a rip-off, no matter who takes the money.
There is a limit to how much I personally can take on, but the war against the "official" thieves (aka bailiffs) nevertheless continues – evidenced by the above, a clamp diligently removed from a car in Bristol this morning after it was fitted by bailiffs in pursuit of an unlawful claim.
The issue here is inflated charges which the bailiffs seek to collect, either through phantom visits or by so-called "van fees" for levies that have not been carried out.
A favourite tactic by these thieves is now to clamp vehicles, then posting a threatening notice on the car, claiming that removal of the clamp is a breach of the Criminal Damage Act 1971. But, as this and this make clear, a vehicle owner has every right under Common Law to remove a clamp that has been unlawfully fitted.
Neither is there an obligation to return the clamp, unless the people who fitted it can provide documentary proof of ownership, although there is nothing to stop the clamp being held as surety against payment of costs incurred in removing it.
This is the second instance of successful clamp removal that has come to my attention in the past few weeks, and I know of many more. And in each case the bailiffs are powerless to act.
But what is so fundamentally disturbing about all this is that the growing illegality of bailiff action is well known to the authorities and has been drawn to the attention of local authorities, national government and parliament.
Most recently, we have seen a report from the Local Government Ombudsman, which makes it very clear that the system is badly off the rails.
To this, there was a response from local government Minister Brandon Lewis, who said, "The use of bailiffs should also be a last resort, they should not be commissioned disproportionately and councils should take direct responsibility for them".
But councils are not taking direct (or any) responsibility for the bailiffs they employ, which means that their entire operations are built on a foundation of illegality. And, as always, parliament does nothing - the MPs all too often concerned only with lining their own pockets.
As citizens, though, we are constantly reminded of our duty to obey the law, and there is no end of agencies which will prosecute, penalise and otherwise persecute us if we fail to live up to our "obligations". But when government in general (and local government in particular) routinely breaks the law, or knowingly condones illegality, then there is a huge credibility gap.
Most of all though, this official indifference to the rule of law sends its own message. If the authorities feel it is acceptable routinely to break the law, then why should we as citizens feel in any way obliged to obey it? And if we take lead from our masters, what right to they have to object?